Well, it's not really a countdown to the conclave yet: we aren't even at the "Sede Vacante" (empty chair) stage yet. But a conclave is well within sight, since Pope Benedict is scheduled to turn in his Keys Thursday, about noon Eastern Time. (Yes, I am going to be glued to the TV to participate in this moving and historic event.)
And even within days of stepping down, Pope Benedict has issued what is most likely his final papal document, a "Motu Proprio" ("on his own initiative") refining some of the rules about...conclaves. For one, he makes it easier for the Cardinals to schedule an earlier start than the 15-days post Sede Vacante that had been the norm. But he also imposed a stiff penalty for any support staff who violate the conclave's secrecy: excommunication.
Isn't that a bit...dramatic?
It certainly is! But it's also a kind of teaching technique (which is what the threat of excommunication generally is: a warning that a certain course of action is very harmful). Far from being a lack of transparency on the part of the Vatican, a conclave's secrecy is meant to protect the cardinals from outside pressure--the very reason the conclave ("lockdown") was devised! After all, the Church of Rome had long centuries of experience of political and economic powers manipulating the election process. Secrecy preserves the cardinals' independence, and allows them full freedom to elect the man they believe most fit for this hour in the Church's life.
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As we look toward the conclave, our primary attitude should be not curiosity, but prayer. To that end, a team of German catholics have come up with an "Adopt a Cardinal" randomizer. Put in your name and and e-mail address, and you get assigned a cardinal to pray for! I ended up with Cardinal Versaldi, Prefect of the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See. There was a picture too: he has a nice face, and a kind of Julius Caesar haircut. I have never heard of him before, but with a job like his, he probably really needs the prayers!